2021 Ram 1500 TRX Review: First Drive

Welcome, to Jurassic Park.

The 2021 Ram 1500 TRX is the Bugatti Chiron of trucks. No, really.

Think about it: both of them are ridiculously extra. They’re over-engineered, over-powered, and single-mindedly built for a specific purpose. The Bug’s goal is ultra-high-speeds; the TRX’s is about being fast too, just over entire dunes instead of around VW’s Ehra-Lessien oval. 

I haven’t driven the Chiron, so I can’t say what it feels like to drive it. I did spend a day flinging Ram’s 702-horsepower, Raptor-hunting TRX around on the road and a dedicated off-road course though. In that short time, I learned the TRX is an incredibly accomplished feat of engineering, capable of traipsing over rocks and sticking landing after landing off sweet, Napoleon-would-approve jumps. For those willing to shell out at least $71,790 ($96,590 CAD), the TRX will produce a steady stream of incredulous laughs—up to and including when this thirsty dino needs a refuel.

Bulking up

It’s easy to dismiss the TRX as a Ram 1500 with a Hellcat engine dropped inside. The truth—and something you’ll likely hear from others who’ve driven it—is that the engine isn’t the stand-out piece of the puzzle in the Ram. It’s still a monster of a motor, sure, giving up just five ponies to the Charger Hellcat thanks to absolutely huge air filters meant to keep all the dust and grit out. There’s still 650 lb-ft of torque to play with too. The figures eclipse Ford’s Raptor by 252 hp and 140 lb-ft of torque, making it look more like a six-foot turkey.

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No, the really clever bits are under the skin. Ram’s engineering team has improved some 74 percent of the 1500 Rebel’s chassis for TRX duty, bringing in higher-strength steel and reinforcing weak points. The front axle is also pushed forward a scooch, to accommodate those massive 35-inch all-terrain tires. These Goodyear items are also specially designed for the TRX, right down to the sidewall and sipe design.

Peek behind the rear tires (and the 14.1-inch brakes) and you’ll find the largest rear coil spring in non-commercial vehicles, coming in at a custom-built 23.6 inches (600 mm). This makes the TRX’s impressive 14 inches of rear suspension travel possible: the front features 13 inches.

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Ram has also widened the TRX for a more stable stance during high-speed dune runs. The 74-inch track (1,880 mm) is 6 inches (150 mm) wider than the Rebel’s, and the TRX features flared arches to (just barely) contain it all. The TRX is so wide (88 inches / 2,235 mm) it needs government-mandated marker lights, here mounted in the functional hood scoop.

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The TRX stretches the concept of “light duty” pickup truck to breaking point. It’s as wide as an HD pickup and it’s multiple inches taller (at 82.2 in) thanks to the one-two punch of that suspension and those tires. The top of the blacked-out grille is nearly at chin height. It also has the weight inching ever closer to the poundage of the real T-rex: at 6,350 lb (2,880 kg), the TRX doesn’t so much tip the scale as flatten it.

So you can imagine how it feels when something this big goes airborne.

Cleared for flight

The team wastes no time getting me into a helmet and HANS device at the off-road park. There’s a short loop here, with two ramps punctuating both straights. I’ve never launched a truck before, so we slowly build up speed. Every pass, my instructor pushes me to add a few extra km/h, and soon enough we’re getting clear air on all four corners. A steady throttle or even slight acceleration is key here: resist the instinct to lift, as that big V8 will point the nose into the ground Colin McRae style if you do.

Once we start hitting the maximum launch speed, it’s easier to imagine dinosaurs evolving into modern day birds. The TRX sails through the air and touches down with more cushion than some cars can muster over a speedbump. All credit goes to the trick Bilstein Black Hawk eadaptive dampers. With remote dampers and braided stainless steel lines, the Bilsteins can respond to driving conditions in as little as 20 milliseconds. It results in a ride that’s as soft as it needs to be out here in the dirt, but with a level of control and articulation that is next-level.

The detours around the ramps illustrate this. To one side is a series of undulating humps, meant to upset lesser lizards. At 25 mph (40 km/h) the TRX just straight-lines them, shuffling us around in our seats a bit but never straying from its path. Beyond that is a muddy playground, with a high-banked corner and a small yump at the end, sitting at 45 degrees to the larger jump on the main track. Hitting these in short succession, with the second jump coming just at the end of a powerslide, is one of those chef-kiss-perfect moments that encapsulates what makes off-roading such a blast.

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There’s a short, rock-strewn path on the far side, where we shift into 4 Low. With the under-nose camera active on the big center screen, it’s easy to place this big boi, and it slowly rolls up and down rocks without an issue. A set of available Mopar rock rails keep the vulnerable flanks free of any dings.

As a testament to the TRX’s toughness, Ram has used the same two black trucks for every wave of this launch event. By my count I’ve launched the one off a ramp around three dozen times, so we’re talking a few hundred jumps this week. It shows zero signs of wear—only a lot of mud.

Mission control

The interior of the TRX isn’t far removed from the regular 1500. If you’ve spent time in the Limited, you’ll find plenty of familiar kit here. That huge touchscreen dominates the dash, and while it’s crisp and easy-to-read, that’s just the thing: you need to read it. There’s a lot to digest here in TRX mission control, so diving in is best reserved to the parking lot. The best example is at the track. When we realize my seat heater is on, my instructor has to try to poke away at the screen right as we go over the undulations portion of the track. It’s probably the hardest either of us work during that.

There’s a lot of leather, Alcantara, and carbon fiber inside the TRX. The flat-bottom steering wheel feels good, though the plastic buttons cheapen the experience a bit. The same can be said for the buttons just to the right of the wheel, where the shifter usually is on lesser 1500s. (It’s moved to the center console here.)  However, what they’re capable of is very important.

There are eight different drive modes in the TRX. In the default mode it’s not far removed from a regular 1500, with only the added tire and exhaust noise really hinting at the changes. We switch between Mud/Sand, Rock, and Baja on the track, and each introduces a different personality. Mud/Sand is locked down, ensuring as much of the Hemi’s prodigious power is transferred into forward movement. Click things over to Baja and it gets decidedly more tail-happy. It’s not reckless—it’s maneuverable. The tail steps out in a way that’s easy to catch in these low-speed conditions.

On-road driving experience

But Sport is the biggest eye-opener, on the roads criss-crossing Ontario’s Prince Edward County. Those trick Bilsteins don’t eliminate roll or dive—they’re good, but not magic. They do tighten things up considerably though, and the TRX’s transmission becomes more eager to hold onto each gear. The supercharger whine makes it easy to want to ride out each of the eight speeds, too.

The soft, malleable nature of this huge, all-terrain-tired truck makes it surprising fun to hustle around curvy roads. It doesn’t feel particularly well-suited to them, but that’s what’s fun about it: the TRX is easy to read. Launch Control is also there for those who absolutely must know what it’s like to hit 60 mph (96 km/h) in 4.5 seconds in something the size of a small house.

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There are of course issues, largely due to the TRX’s largesse. Sitting at a stoplight in town, the tall nose obscures an entire person and their walking dogs. Similarly, cars disappear in your blind spot or behind the tailgate on the highway. I’m especially worried about the latter, because those huge 15.0-inch front brakes mean this is a truck that can probably out-stop nearly every car on the road.

The high driving position and easily accessible power makes the TRX a corrupting agent too. I loved the sense of imperiousness at the track, but not who it turned me into on the road. There’s so little sense of speed that it’s easy to close gaps in a matter of seconds, and the Ram will corner at far higher speeds than you expect of a truck. Maybe you’re stronger-willed than I am. That aggressive attitude probably didn’t help the fuel mileage, which Ram quotes at 10 mpg in the city. I did around that, including brief stints on the highway.

I very much appreciate the available head-up display, which will likely trickle down to the rest of the lineup. The HUD is crisp and easy to read, keeping your eyes closer to the action more of the time. Ram also introduced its trailer reverse steering control here, which is a cleverly simple dial on the dash. It steers a trailer right from the dial, and does so without the need for calibration stickers as in other trucks. We didn’t try it, but it sounds very useful.

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Verdict: 2021 Ram 1500 TRX First Drive Review

There’s another way the TRX is a hypercar with a bed behind the cab: it attracts a lot of attention.

On my final road trip leg of the day, I clock another Ram seemingly tailing me. Having to take the same three corners out in the country is coincidence: twice that isn’t. I pull over to turn around for a good photo op and the white 1500 is immediately beside me. It’s a young fan (of the truck, not me), who is all too excited to tell me he’s been watching YouTube videos of this beast all week. He asks if it’s cool to take some pictures, whipping out his phone to snap a bunch with and without his own ride. He loves his truck and he can’t quite believe he’s spotted this one.

That’s the thing: the TRX is covetable item. It’s a faintly believable product, a feat of engineering brute strength. It’s huge and thirsty, and projects the sort of image that puts the F-U in “Fun”. Does that feel a little tone-deaf in 2020? As much as a W16-powered hypercar for the mega-rich does, sure.

On the other hand, in a bizarre sort of way, the TRX represents strong value for money. A 1500 Limited with all this kit isn’t too far off the price, as trucks become more and more expensive. With this you’d be getting all the extra performance. Just budget in a few extra hundred a year for the dino juice to power it. All hail the king of the lizards.

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